Hugo Chavez in 'Critical' Condition in Havana Hospital - Socialism or Death?

Hugo Chavez is in "critical condition" in a Havana hospital. That's according to unnamed U.S. "intelligence officials" whom Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, sister newspaper of The Miami Herald, quoted on Saturday in an article being picked up by myriad news outlets and web sites.

According to El Nuevo Herald's sources, Chavez is in "critical condition, not grave, but critical, in a complicated situation."

It's the most tantalizing information yet about the Venezuelan strongman's mysterious health problems, which have dominated Venezuela's headlines for weeks. Cuba and Venezuela's information ministries have said next to nothing about what's going on, other than announcing that Chavez underwent surgery on January 10 for a "pelvic inflammation." In Venezuela, speculation has been rife that Chavez suffers prostate cancer. More ominously, within the past 72 hours Chavez's daughter Rosines and mother Marisabel Rodriguez have "urgently" flown to Havana aboard a Venezuelan Air Force jet.

Chavez was last seen in public on June 9, and Venezuelans last heard him talking on June 12, during a phone call aired on Venezuela state television. Venezuela must seem pretty strange these days without the loquacious Chavez -- given his propensity for breaking regularly into television and radio programs to deliver a rambling monologue about current events or anything that pops into his head -- from the evils of American imperialism to the latest CIA plot to kill him. Not long ago, during a TV and radio broadcast from a Caracas slum, Chavez even said he "would not be surprised if a civilization had flourished on Mars, and capitalism arrived, and imperialism arrived and finished off the planet."

That Chavez may be close to death in a Havana hospital bed is a subject rich with ironies. Chavez, after all, is just a 45 minute flight away from a Miami hospital bed via a chartered jet ambulance and a quick helicopter flight. It would be a few hours to a hospital bed in New York City.

If you believe Michael Moore, Chavez is getting great medical care in Havana. But even if that's true, Chavez could nevertheless get the world's very best medical care in the United States. Of course, doing that would mean forsaking a popular slogan that's shouted at communist party rallies in Cuba: "Socialism or Death!" It's the sort of revolutionary fervor that Chavez has tried mightily to import to Venezuela.

When I visited Havana in 1996 and walked through the city's best hospital -- one reserved for communist elites -- I was reminded of the sorts of small hospitals found in backwater towns in Florida -- okay for minor surgery and such, but not places where you'd want to go for sophisticated cancer treatment, especially prostate cancer in its later stages. Even so, at least the physicians at those small hospitals were likely to be trained at the best medical schools in the world - American medical schools. Does Havana even have any MRI machines or world-class cancer-treatment centers? It's doubtful.

Speaking of which, is Chavez being treated by Cuban-trained physicians? If so, El Presidente may have reason to worry. In Florida, physicians trained in Cuba have flunked the state's medical exam in large numbers over the years -- and that included a watered-down exam created especially for them at the behest of the state's Cuban-American lobby.

What sort of advice is Hugo getting from his pal Fidel?  In 2006, Fidel Castro apparently suffered a botched surgical procedure in Havana.  Cuba's government then chartered a jet and flew in a prominent Spanish surgeon, Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, to treat their aging leader. It was perhaps an example of that old anti-communist motto: "Socialism for the masses, capitalism for the classes!"

Socialism or death?

To be sure, Spain is a modern country with excellent medical care.  On the other hand, if you're a rich European with a life-or-death medical condition, you're probably going to fly to New York City -- not Madrid. But at least one of Spain's top surgeons was good enough for whatever problem Castro had.  But what about sophisticated cancer surgery and subsequent treatment?

In the U.S., Chavez would be under the care of miracle workers: brilliant physicians utilizing the most sophisticated equipment, and carrying out the most dazzling medical procedures -- heart transplants, face transplants, and all manner of sophisticated cancer treatments, including for prostate cancer.  And such medical care is available at major cities across the country: Washington, New York, Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix; they're just a few names that come to mind with legendary medical centers.

Ironically, this high-quality care is possible thanks to something that Chavez, Fidel, Michael Moore, and other leftists won't admit -- it's due to American capitalism. Free-enterprise is why we have the medical miracles that we do - from cutting-edge technology and pharmaceuticals to medical centers staffed by the world's best physicians.

Interestingly, Chavez also could get First World medical care in Caracas at a few top-notch medical clinics, including at the venerable Clinica de Caracas.  That's the where I went for routine care (and once for stitches to my forehead) when working in Venezuela as a foreign correspondent; this was during the years Chavez came to power.  My personal physician was trained at a top-notch U.S. medical school -- Ivy League or something in that category.  And like more than a few of the clinic's able physicians he was Jewish.  To Chavez, however, Clinica de Caracas is bourgeois, and given his anti-Semitism he probably wouldn't be keen on visiting a medical center he considered too Jewish.  No, Chavez wouldn't be caught dead at Clinica de Caracas; no pun intended.

Whether Chavez lives or dies, it's likely his medical condition will always remain   a mystery. It would be out-of-character for Venezuela and Cuba's information ministries to be transparent -- tell the truth as in a democracy. Even when President Jimmy Carter had hemorrhoids, it was a matter of public information -- and the butt of jokes on "Saturday Night Live." But authoritarian governments don't announce that sort of thing. It's because at bottom they are not strong but insecure. Cuba never reveled anything about the medical condition afflicting Fidel Castro; it was regarded as a "state secret." Cubans couldn't be trusted with such details.

Speaking of political insecurity, there's plenty of it in Venezuela right now due to uncertainty over Chavez's health -- and what the future holds if he dies. Chavez surrounds himself with "yes" men and has no credible successor.  In true narcissistic fashion, he always fancied that he would rule forever -- and to ensure that happened he pushed through constitutional changes ending presidential term limits. "I need more time in the presidency to finish this," Chavez gushed, when campaigning for the end of term limits so that he could bring full-blown socialism to Venezuela. "We are only beginning. Maybe until 2020 or 2027. I'd be old if I'm still alive."

Finally, if Chavez dies, don't expect a timely announcement of his passing from Caracas or Havana.  Before making any announcement, they'll be scrambling to determine how they'll maintain their grip on power in Venezuela, where thousands of Cuban security agents are operating.

A story comes to mind about what happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin died. Before an official announcement was made, a Western journalist had learned about Stalin's death. He phoned his editor with the news. But when he mentioned the name "Stalin," the line immediately went dead.  He tried again, and again: click.

Finally, he got creative and started his call with a question: "Guess who died?"

"Stalin!" replied his editor. Click -- the line went dead.

The same sorts of intrigue will no doubt occur if Chavez dies -- and Venezuela and Cuban officials try to figure out how to respond. No matter how the saga of Chavez's hospital stay ends, he will at least have gotten great medical care - the best that Havana could provide. Or fly in from Spain.

Socialism or death.

Hugo Chavez is in "critical condition" in a Havana hospital. That's according to unnamed U.S. "intelligence officials" whom Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, sister newspaper of The Miami Herald, quoted on Saturday in an article being picked up by myriad news outlets and web sites.

According to El Nuevo Herald's sources, Chavez is in "critical condition, not grave, but critical, in a complicated situation."

It's the most tantalizing information yet about the Venezuelan strongman's mysterious health problems, which have dominated Venezuela's headlines for weeks. Cuba and Venezuela's information ministries have said next to nothing about what's going on, other than announcing that Chavez underwent surgery on January 10 for a "pelvic inflammation." In Venezuela, speculation has been rife that Chavez suffers prostate cancer. More ominously, within the past 72 hours Chavez's daughter Rosines and mother Marisabel Rodriguez have "urgently" flown to Havana aboard a Venezuelan Air Force jet.

Chavez was last seen in public on June 9, and Venezuelans last heard him talking on June 12, during a phone call aired on Venezuela state television. Venezuela must seem pretty strange these days without the loquacious Chavez -- given his propensity for breaking regularly into television and radio programs to deliver a rambling monologue about current events or anything that pops into his head -- from the evils of American imperialism to the latest CIA plot to kill him. Not long ago, during a TV and radio broadcast from a Caracas slum, Chavez even said he "would not be surprised if a civilization had flourished on Mars, and capitalism arrived, and imperialism arrived and finished off the planet."

That Chavez may be close to death in a Havana hospital bed is a subject rich with ironies. Chavez, after all, is just a 45 minute flight away from a Miami hospital bed via a chartered jet ambulance and a quick helicopter flight. It would be a few hours to a hospital bed in New York City.

If you believe Michael Moore, Chavez is getting great medical care in Havana. But even if that's true, Chavez could nevertheless get the world's very best medical care in the United States. Of course, doing that would mean forsaking a popular slogan that's shouted at communist party rallies in Cuba: "Socialism or Death!" It's the sort of revolutionary fervor that Chavez has tried mightily to import to Venezuela.

When I visited Havana in 1996 and walked through the city's best hospital -- one reserved for communist elites -- I was reminded of the sorts of small hospitals found in backwater towns in Florida -- okay for minor surgery and such, but not places where you'd want to go for sophisticated cancer treatment, especially prostate cancer in its later stages. Even so, at least the physicians at those small hospitals were likely to be trained at the best medical schools in the world - American medical schools. Does Havana even have any MRI machines or world-class cancer-treatment centers? It's doubtful.

Speaking of which, is Chavez being treated by Cuban-trained physicians? If so, El Presidente may have reason to worry. In Florida, physicians trained in Cuba have flunked the state's medical exam in large numbers over the years -- and that included a watered-down exam created especially for them at the behest of the state's Cuban-American lobby.

What sort of advice is Hugo getting from his pal Fidel?  In 2006, Fidel Castro apparently suffered a botched surgical procedure in Havana.  Cuba's government then chartered a jet and flew in a prominent Spanish surgeon, Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, to treat their aging leader. It was perhaps an example of that old anti-communist motto: "Socialism for the masses, capitalism for the classes!"

Socialism or death?

To be sure, Spain is a modern country with excellent medical care.  On the other hand, if you're a rich European with a life-or-death medical condition, you're probably going to fly to New York City -- not Madrid. But at least one of Spain's top surgeons was good enough for whatever problem Castro had.  But what about sophisticated cancer surgery and subsequent treatment?

In the U.S., Chavez would be under the care of miracle workers: brilliant physicians utilizing the most sophisticated equipment, and carrying out the most dazzling medical procedures -- heart transplants, face transplants, and all manner of sophisticated cancer treatments, including for prostate cancer.  And such medical care is available at major cities across the country: Washington, New York, Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix; they're just a few names that come to mind with legendary medical centers.

Ironically, this high-quality care is possible thanks to something that Chavez, Fidel, Michael Moore, and other leftists won't admit -- it's due to American capitalism. Free-enterprise is why we have the medical miracles that we do - from cutting-edge technology and pharmaceuticals to medical centers staffed by the world's best physicians.

Interestingly, Chavez also could get First World medical care in Caracas at a few top-notch medical clinics, including at the venerable Clinica de Caracas.  That's the where I went for routine care (and once for stitches to my forehead) when working in Venezuela as a foreign correspondent; this was during the years Chavez came to power.  My personal physician was trained at a top-notch U.S. medical school -- Ivy League or something in that category.  And like more than a few of the clinic's able physicians he was Jewish.  To Chavez, however, Clinica de Caracas is bourgeois, and given his anti-Semitism he probably wouldn't be keen on visiting a medical center he considered too Jewish.  No, Chavez wouldn't be caught dead at Clinica de Caracas; no pun intended.

Whether Chavez lives or dies, it's likely his medical condition will always remain   a mystery. It would be out-of-character for Venezuela and Cuba's information ministries to be transparent -- tell the truth as in a democracy. Even when President Jimmy Carter had hemorrhoids, it was a matter of public information -- and the butt of jokes on "Saturday Night Live." But authoritarian governments don't announce that sort of thing. It's because at bottom they are not strong but insecure. Cuba never reveled anything about the medical condition afflicting Fidel Castro; it was regarded as a "state secret." Cubans couldn't be trusted with such details.

Speaking of political insecurity, there's plenty of it in Venezuela right now due to uncertainty over Chavez's health -- and what the future holds if he dies. Chavez surrounds himself with "yes" men and has no credible successor.  In true narcissistic fashion, he always fancied that he would rule forever -- and to ensure that happened he pushed through constitutional changes ending presidential term limits. "I need more time in the presidency to finish this," Chavez gushed, when campaigning for the end of term limits so that he could bring full-blown socialism to Venezuela. "We are only beginning. Maybe until 2020 or 2027. I'd be old if I'm still alive."

Finally, if Chavez dies, don't expect a timely announcement of his passing from Caracas or Havana.  Before making any announcement, they'll be scrambling to determine how they'll maintain their grip on power in Venezuela, where thousands of Cuban security agents are operating.

A story comes to mind about what happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin died. Before an official announcement was made, a Western journalist had learned about Stalin's death. He phoned his editor with the news. But when he mentioned the name "Stalin," the line immediately went dead.  He tried again, and again: click.

Finally, he got creative and started his call with a question: "Guess who died?"

"Stalin!" replied his editor. Click -- the line went dead.

The same sorts of intrigue will no doubt occur if Chavez dies -- and Venezuela and Cuban officials try to figure out how to respond. No matter how the saga of Chavez's hospital stay ends, he will at least have gotten great medical care - the best that Havana could provide. Or fly in from Spain.

Socialism or death.

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